The Bees by Laline Paull – a book review

A gripping novel about the life of a bee. It’s literally about a bee in a hive of bees, and yet I could not put it down. The snippets of reviews on the cover and inside covers include the legendary Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale), compares it to Animal Farm, and hint at the ways it discusses our own society. It is definitely as well written and exciting as they all say… but perhaps I missed something, as while I devoured the tale I saw no parallels with our own existence. The characters have incredibly human-like emotions, motivations and actions, but are strongly and undoubtedly apian.

Paull’s understanding of bees is seemingly unending, and I felt not only entertained but educated. The details about the caste-like kin structure of the hive, the ways they communicate, the movement and appearance of their bodies, are so precise and realistic that I almost felt to-scale myself. You might know that all but the drones are male, and that only the queen bee lays eggs, but by the end of this book there will definitely be some facts you’ll be surprised to learn. On the other side of that coin, some facts about bees that are basic knowledge to humans are shocking plot twists; despite knowing exactly what was happening or what secret was being hidden, the tension and the mystery were palpable and thrilling.

The true existence of bees in this novel is not only illuminating, but interesting in thoughts of humanity. It may not hold a mirror to our lives but the gender politics, religiousness and strict social roles have clear messages for us and dystopian tones.

Bees are a strong matriarchy, but the book still shows a reverence for maleness that we also find insidiously hard to avoid. While their ruler and god-head is the obviously female Queen, the drones are all revered, worshipped and waited on hand and foot (or rather, foot and foot, as they’re bees). This revelation about the gender roles in apian society saddened me, if I’m quite honest, but without spoiling the story it has a kind of satisfying twist ending that some might know about.

The structure of society, both the ‘kin’ hierarchy and the connection to the queen, are overtly religious and smack of horrifying, dystopian theocracy. The Queen is immortal, holy and without flaw. Her connection to them is that of a living Goddess, blessing them and being prayed to daily. The female society addressing each other as sister (though, as all were laid by the Queen, they literally are) feels very nun-like, and the highest ranking bees are called Priestesses. While I find the idea of religion being used to create a dystopia dull, as it can be heavy handed and (ironically) preachy, but this is one of the best examples. It doesn’t feel like a “religion is bad and dystopias are caused by religion” lecture, but just one aspect of the terrifying lives of bees and a coincidental truth.

Our protagonist, born to be the lowest class of humble cleaner but destined to ascend that role and achieve greatness, is a very strong dystopia stock character. It’s a well-used and stark mark of a totalitarian society, and strikes everyone with goals with horror. Every single bee has her life’s role, duties and social status decided before birth, pigeon holed into a physically distinguished caste. True to Paull’s gentle touch throughout the book, however, this isn’t portrayed as utterly evil and unbearable. The cleaners are shown to be incapable of the tasks higher roles require, and content to clean as their instinct commands them. Even our chosen one main character, who surprises everyone be being able to talk, make royal jelly, make wax, and forage, finds solace in tidying and camaraderie most in her own kin.

All of the issues presented are simply the way that bees are; this is less a cautionary tale of a twisted, worst-case-scenario than it is a story of a generic society with a corruption problem and a rebel who makes changes. I had that pure reading experience, emotionally invested in the characters, caught up in the narrative and my mind full of images of bees. Whether or not the morals or themes appeal, it’s a great story that happens to have a non-human setting. It’s more than worth the read; it’s worth the accolades and prizes it got and you’re missing out.